Commentary Magazine


Topic: the Newsweek

Flotsam and Jetsam

Awkward. Charles Krauthammer vs. Tina Totenberg.

Unsurprising. “The knives are out for Christiane Amanpour at ABC News’ DC bureau.” The only people happy about NPR’s firing of Juan Williams are the ABC execs whose decision to put her in the This Week host chair is now a distant second in the “Top 10 dumbest news-division decisions.” (Parker-Spitzer on CNN is a close third.)

Stark. “POLITICO surveyed early voting through Saturday in 20 states, and in 14 of the 15 that have voter registration by party, the GOP’s early turnout percentage is running ahead of the party’s share of statewide voter registration — whether measured against 2006 or 2008, when President Barack Obama’s campaign led to a surge in Democratic voter registration. As a result, Republicans say they’re turning the tables on the Democratic dominance of early voting that paved the way for Obama’s victory in 2008 — and that independents’ lean toward the GOP this year will do the rest.”

Unbelievable, even for NPR. Bill Kristol on Fox News Sunday: “So much to dislike about NPR, it’s hard to know where to begin. For me, the CEO’s comment, I mean, the arrogance of it. Juan has worked at NPR for — how long? … And she, in a public forum, having had someone call you to fire you, not having had a meeting with you to discuss anything, says he should see a psychiatrist. I mean, that really is unbelievable.” Why isn’t anyone calling for her to be fired?

Pathetic. “The Democratic Senate candidate from West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin, says he didn’t understand key details of the health care reform legislation when he publicly endorsed it in March — an endorsement he has since withdrawn.”

Transparent. The new 2012 presidential contenders’ game is to run down figures like Karl Rove and leap to Christine O’Donnell’s defense to prove your Tea Party bona fides. Puleez. Is shilling for an unelectable candidate really going to convince voters of your own savvy judgment?

What?! Ari Berman of the Nation says a smaller, more leftist Democratic congressional caucus will help the party. This is the Newsweek theory of politics — we’ll have fewer supporters and be more successful!

Awkward. Charles Krauthammer vs. Tina Totenberg.

Unsurprising. “The knives are out for Christiane Amanpour at ABC News’ DC bureau.” The only people happy about NPR’s firing of Juan Williams are the ABC execs whose decision to put her in the This Week host chair is now a distant second in the “Top 10 dumbest news-division decisions.” (Parker-Spitzer on CNN is a close third.)

Stark. “POLITICO surveyed early voting through Saturday in 20 states, and in 14 of the 15 that have voter registration by party, the GOP’s early turnout percentage is running ahead of the party’s share of statewide voter registration — whether measured against 2006 or 2008, when President Barack Obama’s campaign led to a surge in Democratic voter registration. As a result, Republicans say they’re turning the tables on the Democratic dominance of early voting that paved the way for Obama’s victory in 2008 — and that independents’ lean toward the GOP this year will do the rest.”

Unbelievable, even for NPR. Bill Kristol on Fox News Sunday: “So much to dislike about NPR, it’s hard to know where to begin. For me, the CEO’s comment, I mean, the arrogance of it. Juan has worked at NPR for — how long? … And she, in a public forum, having had someone call you to fire you, not having had a meeting with you to discuss anything, says he should see a psychiatrist. I mean, that really is unbelievable.” Why isn’t anyone calling for her to be fired?

Pathetic. “The Democratic Senate candidate from West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin, says he didn’t understand key details of the health care reform legislation when he publicly endorsed it in March — an endorsement he has since withdrawn.”

Transparent. The new 2012 presidential contenders’ game is to run down figures like Karl Rove and leap to Christine O’Donnell’s defense to prove your Tea Party bona fides. Puleez. Is shilling for an unelectable candidate really going to convince voters of your own savvy judgment?

What?! Ari Berman of the Nation says a smaller, more leftist Democratic congressional caucus will help the party. This is the Newsweek theory of politics — we’ll have fewer supporters and be more successful!

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Another Day, Another Security Leak

The New York Times reported Monday that General David Petraeus issued a secret directive in September, expanding covert military operations in the Middle East. The author, Mark Mazzetti, states that the Times’ staff has viewed a copy of the document. Preparation for the article included speaking to government officials who discussed its contents only on condition of anonymity, because it’s classified.

Fortunately, our information security usually works better than this. Leaks of national-security secrets are the exception and not the rule. But once again, someone on the government payroll, with a clearance, and with knowledge of classified current operations, has broken the law by disclosing what he knows to unauthorized recipients in the press.

It’s unlikely that we will be told someday that the leaker of the Petraeus directive took action because of sleepless nights and professional agony, as Newsweek reported in 2008 of one warrantless-wiretapping leaker who called the New York Times in 2004. In the case of the Petraeus directive, there is no apparent reason for a leaker to be motivated by concern about government overreach or civil rights. Perhaps the motive is disagreement with the policy.

But these leakers aren’t romantic heroes; they are people breaking their government’s security oaths. Thomas Tamm, the known wiretapping leaker, has been investigated (and lionized by the left) but never prosecuted. Yet it’s clear he broke his security oath by going to the media. It’s also clear from the Newsweek story that he came nowhere near exhausting his lawful options for registering concern about the wiretapping program. He apparently talked to a former colleague on the Senate Judiciary Committee — but not to his full chain of command at the Justice Department, to the Justice Department Inspector General, or to the intelligence oversight committee of either house of Congress.

James Risen, the Times reporter who broke the wiretapping story, was subpoenaed by Eric Holder last month to disclose the government sources for another of his classified revelations: this one involving information about U.S. efforts against Iran in his 2006 book State of War. Risen has refused to comply. His fate is uncertain; presumably, he might be jailed for contempt of court as Judith Miller was in the Valerie Plame Wilson case.

Miller ultimately agreed to testify after obtaining immunity. While the Plame Wilson case is not the best example of the real problems created by national-security leaks, the outcome with Miller was the right one for more genuinely damaging cases. The “journalist shield” exception should not protect government leakers who are committing felonies by the very act of disclosing classified information to the press.  Journalists should have to tell the authorities who they are.

The New York Times reported Monday that General David Petraeus issued a secret directive in September, expanding covert military operations in the Middle East. The author, Mark Mazzetti, states that the Times’ staff has viewed a copy of the document. Preparation for the article included speaking to government officials who discussed its contents only on condition of anonymity, because it’s classified.

Fortunately, our information security usually works better than this. Leaks of national-security secrets are the exception and not the rule. But once again, someone on the government payroll, with a clearance, and with knowledge of classified current operations, has broken the law by disclosing what he knows to unauthorized recipients in the press.

It’s unlikely that we will be told someday that the leaker of the Petraeus directive took action because of sleepless nights and professional agony, as Newsweek reported in 2008 of one warrantless-wiretapping leaker who called the New York Times in 2004. In the case of the Petraeus directive, there is no apparent reason for a leaker to be motivated by concern about government overreach or civil rights. Perhaps the motive is disagreement with the policy.

But these leakers aren’t romantic heroes; they are people breaking their government’s security oaths. Thomas Tamm, the known wiretapping leaker, has been investigated (and lionized by the left) but never prosecuted. Yet it’s clear he broke his security oath by going to the media. It’s also clear from the Newsweek story that he came nowhere near exhausting his lawful options for registering concern about the wiretapping program. He apparently talked to a former colleague on the Senate Judiciary Committee — but not to his full chain of command at the Justice Department, to the Justice Department Inspector General, or to the intelligence oversight committee of either house of Congress.

James Risen, the Times reporter who broke the wiretapping story, was subpoenaed by Eric Holder last month to disclose the government sources for another of his classified revelations: this one involving information about U.S. efforts against Iran in his 2006 book State of War. Risen has refused to comply. His fate is uncertain; presumably, he might be jailed for contempt of court as Judith Miller was in the Valerie Plame Wilson case.

Miller ultimately agreed to testify after obtaining immunity. While the Plame Wilson case is not the best example of the real problems created by national-security leaks, the outcome with Miller was the right one for more genuinely damaging cases. The “journalist shield” exception should not protect government leakers who are committing felonies by the very act of disclosing classified information to the press.  Journalists should have to tell the authorities who they are.

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The Real Hypocrisy

COMMENTARY contributor Jamie Kirchick, observing NPR’s ever-so-helpful effort to assist in the Obami’s Fox vendetta by pressuring Mara Liasson to stay off its news programs, spots the double standard at play. He writes:

“By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations,” declared Jacob Weisberg in a Newsweek column titled “Why Fox News Is Un-American” (remember that title the next time a liberal accuses a conservative of “questioning my patriotism”). “Respectable journalists — I’m talking to you, Mara Liasson — should stop appearing on its programs,” Weisberg insisted.

Kirchick wants to know why Weisberg hasn’t spotted the “violators of the Fourth Estate’s vaunted ethical standards” in his own shop — those who regularly turn up on the netroot network, MSNBC. Yes, it seems that Newsweek‘s supposedly impartial newsmen — Richard Wolffe, Howard Fineman, and Jonathan Alter — all have visited Keith Olbermann’s Countdown. Unlike Liasson, who confines herself to news programs, this trio has offered themselves up as bit players in Olbermann’s rant-athon and cogs in the Obama hype-machine. And, as Kirchick notes, Wolffe wrote a slobbering account of the Obama campaign. And then there was this embarrassing episode:

This year, Fineman went beyond the bounds of journalistic propriety by introducing Olbermann at a political fund-raiser. “He’s not a liberal,” Fineman gushed. “What Keith is is an anti-establishment character who doesn’t want people in power to get away with things.” Fineman added that Olbermann “rediscovered the role of journalism and that role is deeply informed judgment about people in power and about the morality of our country.”

Yikes. But perhaps the Newsweek vs. NPR journalist comparison isn’t precisely accurate. Liasson actually is a neutral newsperson who makes some effort to cover events fairly and to leave hyper-partisan invectives to others. She might be cheerily susceptible to liberal spin, but she’s not in the business of spinning for the Obami herself or gratuitously throwing jabs at the Right.

By contrast, the new Newsweek gang gave up “news” reporting a while ago. The entire publication is now devoted to Obama-hype and slams against the usual conservative suspects, those in biking shorts and with talk-radio shows in particular. Newsweek is, in effect, the MSNBC of the weekly “news” magazine world, minus the more extreme Republicans = Nazis formulations one hears on Countdown. So the real hypocrisy here is not only that the media elites see Liasson alone as violating some code of journalistic purity; it is that they accept the pretense that Newsweek is a news outlet rather than a liberal opinion journal in search of an audience.

COMMENTARY contributor Jamie Kirchick, observing NPR’s ever-so-helpful effort to assist in the Obami’s Fox vendetta by pressuring Mara Liasson to stay off its news programs, spots the double standard at play. He writes:

“By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations,” declared Jacob Weisberg in a Newsweek column titled “Why Fox News Is Un-American” (remember that title the next time a liberal accuses a conservative of “questioning my patriotism”). “Respectable journalists — I’m talking to you, Mara Liasson — should stop appearing on its programs,” Weisberg insisted.

Kirchick wants to know why Weisberg hasn’t spotted the “violators of the Fourth Estate’s vaunted ethical standards” in his own shop — those who regularly turn up on the netroot network, MSNBC. Yes, it seems that Newsweek‘s supposedly impartial newsmen — Richard Wolffe, Howard Fineman, and Jonathan Alter — all have visited Keith Olbermann’s Countdown. Unlike Liasson, who confines herself to news programs, this trio has offered themselves up as bit players in Olbermann’s rant-athon and cogs in the Obama hype-machine. And, as Kirchick notes, Wolffe wrote a slobbering account of the Obama campaign. And then there was this embarrassing episode:

This year, Fineman went beyond the bounds of journalistic propriety by introducing Olbermann at a political fund-raiser. “He’s not a liberal,” Fineman gushed. “What Keith is is an anti-establishment character who doesn’t want people in power to get away with things.” Fineman added that Olbermann “rediscovered the role of journalism and that role is deeply informed judgment about people in power and about the morality of our country.”

Yikes. But perhaps the Newsweek vs. NPR journalist comparison isn’t precisely accurate. Liasson actually is a neutral newsperson who makes some effort to cover events fairly and to leave hyper-partisan invectives to others. She might be cheerily susceptible to liberal spin, but she’s not in the business of spinning for the Obami herself or gratuitously throwing jabs at the Right.

By contrast, the new Newsweek gang gave up “news” reporting a while ago. The entire publication is now devoted to Obama-hype and slams against the usual conservative suspects, those in biking shorts and with talk-radio shows in particular. Newsweek is, in effect, the MSNBC of the weekly “news” magazine world, minus the more extreme Republicans = Nazis formulations one hears on Countdown. So the real hypocrisy here is not only that the media elites see Liasson alone as violating some code of journalistic purity; it is that they accept the pretense that Newsweek is a news outlet rather than a liberal opinion journal in search of an audience.

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Newsweek Gushes

Senator McCain’s long-time adviser Mark Salter has penned an outstanding letter to Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, responding to that magazine’s paean to Senator Obama.

Few people are fortunate enough to receive the kind of love and tenderness we find in the Newsweek story. It is especially notable for two things. The first is that Obama is portrayed as a near-mythic figure. He possesses “almost preternatural equanimity.” He has “a light touch in the office, and he can laugh off adversity.” He makes jokes at his own expense. He’s not a screamer but he is an encourager. He wants “steady, calm, focused leadership;” his desire is to “keep out grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters” speak up at meetings. Obama even allows his aides to take naps after pulling a series of all-nighters–including putting his hand on their shoulder when asking them to nap. We read from his aides that he “does not get rattled” and he possesses “grace under fire.” He’s the “alpha male” who “doesn’t micromanage.” No word yet on whether he walks on water or if he can feed the hungry multitudes. But it’s still early in the campaign.

The second thing we learn is that St. Barack must prepare himself for “the coming mud war” led by those oh-so-mean Republicans. McCain’s aides, we learn, include some veterans of “past Republican attack campaigns.” Bringing up Obama’s past associations with Reverend Wright, Tony Rezko and William Ayers is “aiming low.” And of course Floyd Brown and David Bossie, “two of the most experienced attack artists,” warrant two full paragraphs in the story. There is no word on whether Democrats or their 527 groups have, in any campaign, at any time, said or done anything in the least bit problematic. They are, apparently, as pure as the new-driven snow.

The deeper purpose of the article is obvious enough: to tether Republicans to the most toxic elements in their party and de-legitimize in advance criticisms of Obama. Newsweek is attempting to make sure every criticism is viewed through the prism of the GOP’s allegedly ugly motives. So if people make an issue of Obama’s long and intimate relationship with Reverend Wright, it’s taken as evidence of race-baiting.

Newsweek’s cover story is more than evidence that the magazine has cast its lot with Obama. In fact, the deep emotional investment some reporters have in him is beyond anything we have seen since, perhaps, Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign. It’s worth recalling, then, that the Washington Post reporter covering the Kennedy campaign, Richard Harwood, asked to be taken off the beat just before the California primary because he found himself unable to write objectively about Bobby Kennedy. What an admirable and rare thing to find these days.

It’s fine to be impressed with Barack Obama and find him an appealing figure. It’s even fine to decide that electing him is important, even essential, for our republic to survive and flourish. But when reporters reach that point, it’s time to follow the Harwood example. Beyond that, Newsweek’s effort to use its pages as palm branches for Obama while simultaneously discrediting Republicans is an example of why the MSM finds itself in such a bad way these days. The good news is that the claim of objectivity has been cast aside. Newsweek is now operating as a de facto wing of the Obama campaign. It should be, and it will be, seen as such.

Senator McCain’s long-time adviser Mark Salter has penned an outstanding letter to Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, responding to that magazine’s paean to Senator Obama.

Few people are fortunate enough to receive the kind of love and tenderness we find in the Newsweek story. It is especially notable for two things. The first is that Obama is portrayed as a near-mythic figure. He possesses “almost preternatural equanimity.” He has “a light touch in the office, and he can laugh off adversity.” He makes jokes at his own expense. He’s not a screamer but he is an encourager. He wants “steady, calm, focused leadership;” his desire is to “keep out grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters” speak up at meetings. Obama even allows his aides to take naps after pulling a series of all-nighters–including putting his hand on their shoulder when asking them to nap. We read from his aides that he “does not get rattled” and he possesses “grace under fire.” He’s the “alpha male” who “doesn’t micromanage.” No word yet on whether he walks on water or if he can feed the hungry multitudes. But it’s still early in the campaign.

The second thing we learn is that St. Barack must prepare himself for “the coming mud war” led by those oh-so-mean Republicans. McCain’s aides, we learn, include some veterans of “past Republican attack campaigns.” Bringing up Obama’s past associations with Reverend Wright, Tony Rezko and William Ayers is “aiming low.” And of course Floyd Brown and David Bossie, “two of the most experienced attack artists,” warrant two full paragraphs in the story. There is no word on whether Democrats or their 527 groups have, in any campaign, at any time, said or done anything in the least bit problematic. They are, apparently, as pure as the new-driven snow.

The deeper purpose of the article is obvious enough: to tether Republicans to the most toxic elements in their party and de-legitimize in advance criticisms of Obama. Newsweek is attempting to make sure every criticism is viewed through the prism of the GOP’s allegedly ugly motives. So if people make an issue of Obama’s long and intimate relationship with Reverend Wright, it’s taken as evidence of race-baiting.

Newsweek’s cover story is more than evidence that the magazine has cast its lot with Obama. In fact, the deep emotional investment some reporters have in him is beyond anything we have seen since, perhaps, Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign. It’s worth recalling, then, that the Washington Post reporter covering the Kennedy campaign, Richard Harwood, asked to be taken off the beat just before the California primary because he found himself unable to write objectively about Bobby Kennedy. What an admirable and rare thing to find these days.

It’s fine to be impressed with Barack Obama and find him an appealing figure. It’s even fine to decide that electing him is important, even essential, for our republic to survive and flourish. But when reporters reach that point, it’s time to follow the Harwood example. Beyond that, Newsweek’s effort to use its pages as palm branches for Obama while simultaneously discrediting Republicans is an example of why the MSM finds itself in such a bad way these days. The good news is that the claim of objectivity has been cast aside. Newsweek is now operating as a de facto wing of the Obama campaign. It should be, and it will be, seen as such.

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Another Round On Hamas

Newsweek is running a cover story on Barack Obama and the upcoming campaign. The story concerns pre-emptive claims by the Obama camp that the Republican-leaning 527′s will “Swiftboat” him and that John McCain will play the race card and take up other scurrilous positions. The Newsweek story also states that McCain sent out a fundraising letter “suggesting that Obama was the candidate of Hamas.” It includes mention of John McCain’s comment that he would be Hamas’ “worst nightmare,” the Obama “smear” reaction, and then the McCain retort focusing on ageism. The piece neatly avoids mentioning that in fact Hamas did endorse Obama.

The McCain team has responded to Newsweek with another Mark Salter letter, once again too long to reprint in full. (Free advice: stop writing long complaint letters if you want reporters to quote you in full.) The gist: the Newsweek authors unfairly took the Obama camp’s point of view and attributed tactics and motives to McCain (e.g. using race and playing up Obama’s foreign image) which McCain has already renounced.

As to the Hamas issue, Salter writes:

The Senator has never said that Senator Obama shares Hamas’ goals or values or proposed a relationship with Hamas different than the one he would propose. On the contrary, he publicly acknowledged that he doesn’t believe Senator Obama. He did note that there must be something about Obama’s positions, particularly his repeated insistence that he would meet with the President of Iran (Hamas’s chief state sponsor), that was welcomed by Hamas. Imagine if a right wing death squad spokesman announced that they welcomed McCain’s election. Would [the authors] treat that as an illegitimate issue or would they examine which of McCain’s stated positions might have found favor with the terrorists? That seems obvious on its face to me. Rather than argue that his position on Iran is the right one and has no bearing on how Hamas views him, Senator Obama makes a false charge that we accused him of advocating a different relationship with Hamas than Senator McCain’s supports. His false characterization of Senator McCain’s statement was accepted uncritically by [the authors].

What to make of all this? As a stylistic and tactical matter, one wonders if ponderous letters from Salter complaining about all manner of press unfairness really move the ball down the field for McCain. Don’t these missives reach a point of diminishing returns and divert attention from the real matter at hand: Obama’s positions and words? And worse still, some may attribute Salter’s irate tone to his boss, worsening the perception that McCain is thin-skinned and easily angered.

As for the substance, the McCain camp should be more direct about the real issues. Why has Hamas endorsed Obama? Is this what comes from offering Iran the opportunity for direct presidential visits? And what, if anything, have Obama advisors communicated to Hamas about Obama’s views? You can ask all that in one paragraph.

Newsweek is running a cover story on Barack Obama and the upcoming campaign. The story concerns pre-emptive claims by the Obama camp that the Republican-leaning 527′s will “Swiftboat” him and that John McCain will play the race card and take up other scurrilous positions. The Newsweek story also states that McCain sent out a fundraising letter “suggesting that Obama was the candidate of Hamas.” It includes mention of John McCain’s comment that he would be Hamas’ “worst nightmare,” the Obama “smear” reaction, and then the McCain retort focusing on ageism. The piece neatly avoids mentioning that in fact Hamas did endorse Obama.

The McCain team has responded to Newsweek with another Mark Salter letter, once again too long to reprint in full. (Free advice: stop writing long complaint letters if you want reporters to quote you in full.) The gist: the Newsweek authors unfairly took the Obama camp’s point of view and attributed tactics and motives to McCain (e.g. using race and playing up Obama’s foreign image) which McCain has already renounced.

As to the Hamas issue, Salter writes:

The Senator has never said that Senator Obama shares Hamas’ goals or values or proposed a relationship with Hamas different than the one he would propose. On the contrary, he publicly acknowledged that he doesn’t believe Senator Obama. He did note that there must be something about Obama’s positions, particularly his repeated insistence that he would meet with the President of Iran (Hamas’s chief state sponsor), that was welcomed by Hamas. Imagine if a right wing death squad spokesman announced that they welcomed McCain’s election. Would [the authors] treat that as an illegitimate issue or would they examine which of McCain’s stated positions might have found favor with the terrorists? That seems obvious on its face to me. Rather than argue that his position on Iran is the right one and has no bearing on how Hamas views him, Senator Obama makes a false charge that we accused him of advocating a different relationship with Hamas than Senator McCain’s supports. His false characterization of Senator McCain’s statement was accepted uncritically by [the authors].

What to make of all this? As a stylistic and tactical matter, one wonders if ponderous letters from Salter complaining about all manner of press unfairness really move the ball down the field for McCain. Don’t these missives reach a point of diminishing returns and divert attention from the real matter at hand: Obama’s positions and words? And worse still, some may attribute Salter’s irate tone to his boss, worsening the perception that McCain is thin-skinned and easily angered.

As for the substance, the McCain camp should be more direct about the real issues. Why has Hamas endorsed Obama? Is this what comes from offering Iran the opportunity for direct presidential visits? And what, if anything, have Obama advisors communicated to Hamas about Obama’s views? You can ask all that in one paragraph.

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Who Is He?

John McCain’s “Bio Tour” ( and the incidents Abe refers to) got me thinking about all the candidates’ backgrounds and personalities. And it struck me: what do we really know about Barack Obama? I don’t mean that in the creepy, suggestive way that the Clinton team does, seeming to imply some jumbo skeleton in his closet. I mean in the sense of knowing him and his personality the way we do with McCain or Hillary Clinton.

With both Clinton and McCain you could reel off a list of personal characteristics and be able to hazard a guess as to how they would react in a variety of settings, political or otherwise. For Clinton we have a sense of her basic personality – the negative (dishonest, self-righteous, controlling) and the positive (tenacious . . . ok, I’m stuck, but there are others). Similarly with McCain, who has taken to joking about his best known negative quality (temper), we think we “get” who he is. Part of this is a function of their longevity in the public eye and part is that they actually talk about themselves.

Obama’s cool reserve and verbal acuity have benefited him in many ways ( keeping him above the fray in the debates, for example), but also prevented voters from getting to know him. Is he an “A” or “B” personality? Is he gregarious or a loner? Is he quick to anger or does he hold a grudge? We don’t know any of that and he seems disinclined, as we saw in the Wright episode, to talk about himself. (He’d rather tell us all about us.) So we try to get glimpses of him from his wife’s comments (is he arrogant and self-centered too?), from his choice of associates and mentors, or from an incident on the campaign trail( is he not a “people person”?) to put together a picture of who he is. We still don’t know. And that’s remarkable for someone who’s been running for President for over a year.

But, as he said in his own book, he’s a “blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” Telling us who he really is might muddy the mass exercise in self-projection and thus dim his allure. And if the Newsweek cover story got it right, he might not have a very fixed sense of his own identity. So it may be awhile, if ever, before we learn who he really is. Whatever your political preferences, that’s a bit unnerving.

John McCain’s “Bio Tour” ( and the incidents Abe refers to) got me thinking about all the candidates’ backgrounds and personalities. And it struck me: what do we really know about Barack Obama? I don’t mean that in the creepy, suggestive way that the Clinton team does, seeming to imply some jumbo skeleton in his closet. I mean in the sense of knowing him and his personality the way we do with McCain or Hillary Clinton.

With both Clinton and McCain you could reel off a list of personal characteristics and be able to hazard a guess as to how they would react in a variety of settings, political or otherwise. For Clinton we have a sense of her basic personality – the negative (dishonest, self-righteous, controlling) and the positive (tenacious . . . ok, I’m stuck, but there are others). Similarly with McCain, who has taken to joking about his best known negative quality (temper), we think we “get” who he is. Part of this is a function of their longevity in the public eye and part is that they actually talk about themselves.

Obama’s cool reserve and verbal acuity have benefited him in many ways ( keeping him above the fray in the debates, for example), but also prevented voters from getting to know him. Is he an “A” or “B” personality? Is he gregarious or a loner? Is he quick to anger or does he hold a grudge? We don’t know any of that and he seems disinclined, as we saw in the Wright episode, to talk about himself. (He’d rather tell us all about us.) So we try to get glimpses of him from his wife’s comments (is he arrogant and self-centered too?), from his choice of associates and mentors, or from an incident on the campaign trail( is he not a “people person”?) to put together a picture of who he is. We still don’t know. And that’s remarkable for someone who’s been running for President for over a year.

But, as he said in his own book, he’s a “blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” Telling us who he really is might muddy the mass exercise in self-projection and thus dim his allure. And if the Newsweek cover story got it right, he might not have a very fixed sense of his own identity. So it may be awhile, if ever, before we learn who he really is. Whatever your political preferences, that’s a bit unnerving.

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